The government’s historic ordering of a nationwide lockdown — limiting the movement of 60 million people — has transformed Italy into a testing ground for not only what it might take to control the virus, but how much a democracy is willing to upend life’s most basic routines and joys.
In Rome on Tuesday, the city was moving at a crawl. People tele-worked or didn’t work at all; they wore masks or wrapped scarves around their mouths; they kept a suspicious distance from others. They tried to drop the habits that seemed suddenly dangerous — the kiss greeting; the chat at the cafe counter — even as depression and deep financial pain seemed like unavoidable side effects of the lockdown.
“I’m mostly sealed indoors,” said Ivano Canni, 49, a newsstand owner, describing his sense, building for many other Italians as well, that any social contact carries a risk. “I’m trying to stand two meters apart from others. I open my door to let fresh air in for half an hour or so, then close it back.”
Italy’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak had been to try to preserve normalcy and limit the economic sacrifices. But as active cases have accelerated, the approach has changed dramatically, leading to restrictions on movement unprecedented by a democracy and new moves by Italy’s neighbors to tighten or close borders.
On the first day of the nationwide lockdown, Italians appeared to be largely heeding orders, following the pleas of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said Italy’s health system was at risk of being overwhelmed if people continued to move freely and spread the virus.
Describing all of Italy as a “protected zone,” Conte on Monday night ordered a decree to essentially keep Italians in place, with any travel — abroad or across regions — requiring a signed declaration and checks from police. Some leaders in the north, the epicenter of the outbreak, suggested Tuesday that Italy should go even further in tightening the restrictions, stopping all nonessential business and transportation.
Italy’s strategy against the virus has moved quickly only because the disease has grown exponentially. Sixteen days ago, it had some 100 total cases. Ten days ago it had 1,000. On Tuesday, it had more than 8,500 active cases; another 1,000 people had recovered, and 631 had died. The country, with the world’s second-highest proportion of seniors, is particularly vulnerable to a disease that has proved deadliest for older people. Most who have died of the coronavirus were in their 70s or older.
If Italy’s measures work to slow the spread, other countries with escalating outbreaks, including Germany and France, could attempt to use similar tactics. But in the meantime, other European countries have tried to limit the movement of Italians across the continent’s often-celebrated open borders.
Austria on Tuesday announced a ban on all Italians seeking to enter the country without a special medical certificate. Later in the day, Slovenian authorities announced they were following Austrian example. The island nation of Malta, to the south, has suspended all flights and passenger ships between itself and Italy — effectively blocking its Mediterranean neighbor. And Spain’s cabinet banned direct flights between Italy and Spanish airports.
Switzerland, which shares a border with Italy but is not a member of the European Union, tightened its border to Italian tourists. But on Tuesday Italian workers were still allowed to cross into Switzerland as long as they could provide documentation of their employment, according to the Swiss government.
Several other European countries, including Britain and Croatia, are asking anyone arriving from Italy to self-isolate for 14 days. Britain also issued a travel advisory on Monday discouraging all but essential travel to Italy. And British Airways announced the temporary cancellation of flights to and from Italy. France’s border with Italy, meanwhile, remained open on Tuesday. Air France announced a reduced service that would still allow passengers to access each Italian destination in the airline’s network.
Italy’s lockdown is nowhere near as absolute as the one instituted in January in China, whose authoritarian Communist government has used smartphone apps to track citizens and in some instances limited people to their apartment complexes.
In Rome, people were able to move around the city freely. But the changes were noticeable.
In the center of the city, a popular bakery removed most of its tables, and only two people sat inside, each sipping coffee alone. At cafes, baristas wore gloves. At a dentist’s office, a waiting room was moved outdoors, and people were told to remain six feet apart. Many smaller stores shuttered, and one boutique posted the news of its temporary closure on Instagram with the hashtag #iorestoacasa, or #imstayingathome. Museums were closed to visitors, and the Vatican shut down St. Peter’s Square.
“This is a historic moment at the world level,” said Denise Mortera, 39, a wedding planner in a country where weddings, like all other public gatherings, are now on hold until at least April 3. “There is a bit of powerlessness when facing a phenomenon that is this big.”
And in a final blow to socializing, restaurants and bars were ordered to close by 6 p.m. — about three hours before Romans tend to have dinner. Customers were only allowed for lunch if they remained three feet apart.
The silence, were it for a single day, might have felt like a respite. But for many Romans, it came with a sense of bleakness and fear. At a pizzeria in the normally bustling neighborhood of Prati, a family of three was forced to split itself between two tables — parents at one table, daughter at another — to obey the restrictions. The other tables were empty.
“It’s a catastrophe,” the restaurant owner, Fabrizio Cicchetti, 41, said. “I need to pay taxes and monthly contributions for employees. Today I was supposed to pay the rent for these walls. The owner came and I told him, ‘I have no money.’ ”
The owner was understanding.
An official in Italy’s economic ministry has said payments on mortgages would be suspended during the crisis, and the government has pledged bailouts to help with the financial losses. But Cicchetti said the damage would be lasting in an emotional way, as well.
“The thing that bothers me is not being able to greet people with kisses and hugs and handshakes,” he said. “I don’t even trust myself at this point. I may have touched a surface that is contaminated.”